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How to Use Storytelling to Preserve and Share Family Values

We all want the next generations in our families to lead happy, productive lives and to embrace the values that we ourselves hold dear.

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Photo by Yannes Kiefer

Fewer than 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation. For all the other business founders, those who will not be able to pass their company on to their children, the question of how best to transition their wealth in the near future looms large.

It’s a crucial challenge. Chris Heilmann, chief fiduciary executive of U.S. Trust, told Forbes: “I’ve been in this business for 41 years working with families, and from my experience, if wealthy people are faced with a choice of being able to hand down their money or their values, but not both, they’d want to hand down their values.”

I’ve spent 20 years working with families and multigenerational family enterprises. They’ve done the work of establishing a list of core values, a common set of beliefs and behaviours that are meant to guide the next generation in making decisions, especially in times of conflict.

But for many, all they’ve got is that list, perhaps with an extended definition of what each value – integrity or generosity or hard work – means to their family. Where they feel vulnerable is in figuring out how best to pass those values on. I believe strongly that the solution lives in a practice we use everyday: storytelling.

The Glue That Holds Society Together

Stories have allowed humans to pass on values, lessons, and wisdom for thousands of years. Before the written word, they were the glue that held societies together. Stories were as essential as food and shelter. Religious leaders have long understood their power, but recently it’s been scientists who have championed the power of storytelling.

Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson’s recent research proves that when we tell stories about experiences that shaped our thinking and way of life, we can have the same shaping effect on our audiences … just by sharing our story with them. MRIs show that the brain of the person telling a story and the brain of the person listening to it can synchronize. According to Hasson: “By simply telling a story” we are able to “plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

At first, it sounds a bit Orwellian, but it’s really just what every parent yearns for: to inspire our children and grandchildren to embrace our values.

The key is in realizing that while our children’s instincts are often to rebel against our guidance, they are physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally wired to learn from us — if we share our advice in the form of stories.

Tried-and-Tested Storytelling Tips

So how can you learn to share more of your life and business stories with the next generation?

The first thing to know is that everyone has the ability to share stories, even if they don’t feel confident at first.

As a society, we’ve grown obsessed with hearing stories in the news and on celebrity gossip sites, but not many of us share meaningful stories about our own lives on a regular basis. The good news is that it’s easy, and everyone has an abundance of material. Three of the elements of good storytelling I recommend my clients start with are:

  1. Share a setback: Focus on sharing times when you consulted a core value to overcome personal or business setbacks.
  2. Share a detail: People will be 100 times more likely to remember your story if you include just one strong, specific detail.
  3. Share an emotion: Don’t just share what happened; share how you felt about what happened. Try to recall how you felt emotionally when you were right there, inside that experience.

Here are a few practical ideas for how to share stories that our clients have tried and profited from:

  1. Have a facilitator, or one of the younger generation, interview members of the family on a small stage at an annual family retreat.
  2. Make the role of “family archivist” a paid position with a fixed term that each family member can apply for. This person can interview family members by video or phone and keep a private family blog, and sort and add captions to family photos. I’ve seen this position ignite deep family pride and engagement among millennials and Gen Z.
  3. For families with children still living at home, have them keep a bowl with “story prompts” on their dining room table. Each family member takes a turn answering a question each evening or at Sunday dinner, giving the next generation an opportunity to both hear stories and share their own, too.
  4. Work with a professional firm to capture their personal, family, or business story in depth in a book or video, as a legacy for generations to come. As one of my clients said to me recently, “I insure everything of value in my life; why wouldn’t I also insure my memories?”
  5. The next time a child or grandchild says they don’t know what to do, do not try to solve their problem for them. That’s the easy way. Instead, urge them to connect with their heart. Tell them about a time you felt most lost and what you did next. Just start with six words: Let me tell you a story… Inspiration will follow.

Everyone wants the same thing. They want the next generations in their family to lead happy, productive lives and to embrace the values that they themselves hold dear. It’s that simple.

By encouraging them to share their personal, family, and business stories, I am giving them the tools to pass on those values, and ultimately, their legacy. Just as our ancestors did, through the act of storytelling and being listened to we can connect to our past, others, and even more deeply to ourselves.

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